God Bless AM Radio

Of the electronic media, AM radio is the most neglected. It was the first, the progenitor of TV, FM, cable TV, satellite TV, VCRs, DVD and the Internet. For three decades, from 1920 to about 1950, it was king. But sometime in the 1950s, radio lost electronic supremacy to TV. And then in the 1970s, AM fell behind FM. A lot of folks don't bother with AM at all anymore.

But last Thursday and Friday, at least in New York City, AM was on top of the heap. When the power went out on a hot summer afternoon at 4:13 last Thursday, what you needed were a bottle of water and a battery-powered portable radio with an AM tuner. Fortunately, I had both. Actually, Tad Smith, one of our corporate executives had the radio, but he held it out and passed it around so that all could hear the news.

It was the only way folks tumbling out of our building at 26th and Park Ave. had of knowing what was going on after the lights and computer flickered off.

(By the way, for AM's temporary return to eminience, Smith's radio was oddly suited. It was new model, but built to look like an AM-only transistor of the early 1960s. In fact, as a radio from that time might, its plastic housing proudly proclaimed that it was "Transistor"—then the state of the art. )

Of course, Smith's radio had an FM tuner as all radios must these days, but we kept it on AM. It was an AM day.

As everyone kinda knows instinctly, AM is where you go when the power goes out. After it lost the fidelity war with FM, AM reinvented itself around news and talk. If you are lucky, you live in a town where one of the AM stations still has reporters on the street and takes local news seriously. New York is fortunate to have several.

All Thursday night and into Friday, I stuck to WCBS, Infinity's all-news station at 880 Khz. It had reporters scattered throughout Manhattan and one circling overhead in a helicopter. None had much to say, but all provided reassurance that things in Manhattan were not unraveling, that people were behaving themselves and, without actually saying so, that everything would be all right in the end.

AM has some inherent disadvantages to FM. Not only does AM sound worse, it is susceptible to noisy interference from lightning and electrical devices of all kinds. You don't want to drive near the power lines during a key moment in the ball game.

The medium has been badly mistreated over the years. When radio makers noticed that listeners were migrating to FM, they accelerated the march by putting more money into the FM tuners and less into the AM. Some of the AM tuners are so bad you wonder why the manufacturers still bother. This is especially true of the tuners built into CD and tape players and those little sports radios for joggers.

The FCC has also damaged AM. For years, it had a policy of cramming as many stations into the band as it could until it practically collapse under its own weight. After a while, it was tough to find where one station began and another ended, especially at night when AM signals tend to go wild.

For all that, AM still has some wonderful qualities. In every market, there are still a handful of stations with the juice and the antennas to lay down a signal powerful enough to pop from any radio, no matter how cheaply built. And these signals know how to propagate, how to get into every nook and cranny, and cover entire metropolitan areas seamlessly.

AM ain't what she used to be, but it's still an important role player and keeping the band strong and healthy is, I think, a matter of national security. AM radios are cheap and ubiquitous and they require little power. Should things really go bad in this country, AM is the most surest way of reaching the citizenry. A handful of the old clear-channel stations can cover the entire nation. And in a pinch you can build a receiver with a handful of wire and some headphones. You don't even need batteries.

They say that after the apocalypse, after mankind finally destroys itself in a nuclear holocaust, the hardiest species—the cockroach—will inherent the earth. If so, I know what they will be listening to.

Even with AM, it was a trying few days in New York. We tried to return to work on Friday morning, after a long night, but power wasn't restored until Friday night. That meant the entire crew had to come in on Saturday and work 10 hours (without air conditioning) to complete the job. That you are reading this is testimony that we did.

It was an extraordinary effort. For it, I'd like to thank our reporters and editors, including those in Washington and Los Angeles who never missed a beat and kept on reporting. I'd also like to thank the support troops, the building managers and the IT and production staffers, and our printer. They too went out of their way to make this magazine happen.

Jessell may be reached at